Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 1 Chapter 1 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 1, Chapter 1 : Archie 1974, 1945 (The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones) | Summary



Part 1 is introduced with a quotation from 20th-century English writer E.M. Forster's 1905 novel Where Angels Fear to Tread. The quotation illustrates a central theme of the text—the idea that it is impossible to know the significance over time of even the smallest action. Part 1 focuses on the defining experiences of Archie Jones's life, which happened in 1945 and in 1974.

In the last days of 1974, 47-year-old Englishman Archie Jones feels his world is ending. His wife, Ophelia Diagilo, has divorced him after 30 years of unhappy matrimony, and Archie is troubled by a sense of his own mediocrity and insignificance. For 20 years he has earned a living designing folded paper products. Even the two distinguishing events of Archie's life have been unremarkable. At age 17 he served in the final year of World War II, never seeing combat but receiving a leg wound. No one considers his war experience relevant or interesting. In the 1948 Olympics, he tied for 13th place in track cycling, but was omitted from the Olympic records because of a clerical error.

Archie's only friend is his wartime comrade and neighbor, Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim. The two rekindled their friendship in 1973, when Samad moved to London with his 20-year-old wife, Alsana Begum. During one of their daily meetings at O'Connell's Poolroom, Samad urges Archie to start a new life, as he has done by marrying Alsana.

On the basis of a coin toss, Archie decides to commit suicide. On New Year's Day, he parks his car outside a butcher shop and proceeds to run the exhaust into the cab. The proprietor, Mo Hussein-Ishmael, informs Archie he is in a no-parking zone, rendering his suicide attempt unsuccessful. Archie feels that "for the first time since his birth, Life had said Yes" to him. Excited by a new sense of possibility, he crashes an "End of the World" party at a local commune. There he meets 19-year-old Jamaican beauty Clara Bowden, whose sole imperfection is having no top teeth. Archie is taken by Clara's warmth and maturity, and marries her six weeks later.


Archie Jones is a simple, passionless, undistinguished man. His attempts at greatness have been thwarted by absurd fate, and life has pushed him along the corridors of mediocrity into a weary, detached middle age. His few skills are practical, not intellectual. To reclaim some sense of agency, he claims a long-broken vacuum cleaner from the detritus of his marriage and fixes it. There is nothing much in his life worth cleaning up, however, and Archie promptly disassembles the vacuum to use the tubing as an instrument of suicide.

It is not acute suffering but a sense of meaninglessness that brings him to consider suicide. Having no guiding values, Archie is largely unable to make decisions. Coin toss is his preferred method for decision making; his use of a coin to decide that great philosophical question posed by Shakespeare's Hamlet, "To be or not to be?" speaks of his indifference to life. It also conveys one of the book's central themes: the complicated relationship between fate and free will. Archie chooses to turn his life over to fate, and fate, in the form of an irritated butcher, denies him his death. The butcher is indifferent to whether Archie lives or dies; practical concern alone compels him to intervene.

Immediately following this absurd salvation—which is also, paradoxically, a failure to succeed at suicide—Archie makes a series of impulsive choices that will determine the course of his life in the decades to follow. Exhilarated by this second chance at life, Archie deviates from his usual habits and stumbles into unusual company. A few uncharacteristically impulsive decisions lead Archie into a hasty second marriage with a much younger woman from another culture. The lives of these two couples (Archie and Clara, Samad and Alsana) and their families, as well as their personal and ancestral histories, provide the framework for Smith's exploration of gender and intercultural dynamics, the relationship between individuals and history, the tension between choice and fate as well as between traditional and modern ways of knowing and being, and the ways in which identities are constructed, challenged, deconstructed, and reclaimed in postcolonial England.

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